The current leadership crises in the South Carolina House of Representatives, while acutely embarrassing, grants us a rare opportunity to reform the House structure and spread power to a broader number of legislators. Or more succinctly, allows us to bring the House out of the Dark Ages and into the 21st Century.
This assertion may come as a surprise as most voters assume that every Representative has equal power. While each of the 124 members of the House has one vote, their power to influence legislation derives from their committee assignment and ultimately, the homage they pay to the Speaker.
Let me explain how our House feudal system works.
Our state constitution merely creates the framework for the South Carolina House of Representatives. The House Rules establish the procedure for the election of the Speaker, defines his duties, defines House committees and the election of their chairmen. When a member runs for Speaker of the House, he must be elected by a majority of all House members regardless of party affiliation.
Once elected, the Speaker decides the committee assignment of each member. The committee members vote for their chairman. The new committee chairman then chooses his sub-committee chairmen – a nice little system of quid pro quo.
The House Rules define six standing committees that handle the vast majority of legislation. Members may serve on only one of these standing committees.
Each committee chairman determines the legislation to be debated in his committee. Of the six standing committees, the Ways and Means Committee garners the most power by controlling both budget and revenue legislation. A more appropriate name could be the Who Gets What and Who Gets Taxed Committee. It has 25 members – just 20% of the total House membership.
These combined rules give the Speaker incredible power to decide committee composition, influence the selection of committee chairmen, determine the flow of legislation and most harmful, create a system of fealty that diverts the loyalty of members away from their constituents and to the Speaker. It also concentrates spending power to the members of Ways and Means Committee with each subcommittee becoming a spending fiefdom.
Currently, there are no limitations for how long a member may be Speaker or committee chairman.
This concentration of power into the hands of a few wastes the talents of many existing House members, blunts the reforms promoted by new generations of members and ultimately disenfranchises those voters who elected them.
Our outdated system explains why important legislation such as road funding reform, tax reform, ethics reform, government restructuring and a host of other problems are never solved. Those in power are more interested in keeping power than solving problems. For the sake of our future, this must change.
As each candidate for Speaker calls me, and as of this morning I have talked to three, I am bluntly advising them that my vote goes to the one who can best reform these outdated rules.